Sunday, January 16, 2011

Part 44: Ride the High Country

Since the very beginning of Bishop Brent's Baguio School, outdoor excursions were an integral part of the curriculum. Santo Tomas, Asin Hot Springs and trips to the beach were regular parts of student life. On February 28, 1910, the first annual Great Northern Hike up into the mountains of the Cordilleras was undertaken. For the first few decades the entire school would take part in this adventure. Headmaster, teachers, students, the cook leading a pack mule loaded with pots, pans and supplies would head north on foot. On occasion even Bishop Brent would make the 250 mile trek; from Baguio up 2000 feet to Haight's Place, on to Suyoc, Cervantes, Sagada, Bontoc and finally Banaue and then back to Baguio.

After the school went co-ed in 1926, it was deemed to be unladylike for the girls to take part in the annual hike. Post WWII the Great Northern Hike had become a class activity, limited to those who signed up to go, usually Seniors and Juniors and now they went by van, bus or truck.

So it was that I found myself part of Mr Pettitt's field trip into the Mountain Province. We were to collect field research and write a term paper that would count as 25% of our final grade. Norman, Curby, CJ, Scott Jazynka and Lulie were just some of students who had signed up. We loaded up a truck with our gear and supplies, gym mats on the truck bed and a tarp over the back half to keep them dry and give those of us riding in the back a little shade. Canvas straps were woven between the end posts to keep us from bouncing out on the rough narrow mountain roads. The chaperones took turns riding up in the cab which was not as much a luxury as you might think.
The roads were very narrow, at times one side of the truck would scrape the cliff walls while on the other the outside tires hugged the edge of the road. It was much more scary being inside the truck than in back where we could only see the road behind us.

Our driver was George Latawan, a mountain man who wore cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and US Army surplus coat. He drove fast in Baguio and drove faster on the open mountain roads. I don't think Pettitt or the other teachers on our trip knew it, but George always kept a bottle of Ginebra San Miguel behind the seat of the truck. Now that he was away from the school he was able to partake of his favorite beverage from time to time. Ginebra was very popular among the mountain tribes. We would pass villages where mounds of empty bottles were stored in fish nets, waiting to be taken down the mountain to be sterilized and refilled. The youngest member on this field trip, I got the
distinct feeling that quite a few of them didn't like having an underclassmen along on the trip. Some of them complained to Pettitt but he had already made up his mind. So I spent my free time hanging out with George. I helped him each morning to get the truck loaded and ready to go; I became his "sidekick" during this trip.

We spent most of the first day driving, it was hot and dusty in the back of the truck and after a few hours we got used to the amazing scenery around us. But then the fog started rolling in, so thick now that we could only see the road thirty feet or so ahead or behind. Here and there the tops of the tall Benguet Pines poked out and then rock formations, looking like ghostly towers or parapets of castles appeared! Sagada. Home of famed anthropologist William Henry Scott. Clean, pristine, pine forests right up into the town; white and green houses and buildings that looked like Brent. The old church looked medieval which added to the mysterious atmosphere. Sagada was the second largest Episcopal mission in Mountain Province, older than the one in Baguio. Long before Bishop Brent opened his school, Fr. Staunton, another Episcopalian legend was at work in Sagada. He started schools, a lumber mill, acquired a printing press; later a convent was opened.

Dirty and tired we hurried up to unload the truck because it looked like it was going to rain; we were going to sleep in classrooms of one of the schools. Later, when it started to pour, Lulie and I grabbed our soap and shampoo and went out to shower under the downspout. It was wonderful to get the grime of the road off our bodies. Afterwards, we started work on supper. George went up to Mr Pettitt and asked " I need to go into town to pick up some supplies, can I take one of the boys to help me?" That meant me. We left and George made a beeline straight to a local watering hole. He bellied up to the bar and ordered gin with a water chaser and a beer for me. The bartender poured a tall water glass full of Gin and the same size glass with water in it. George drained the Gin and then chugged the water. Mouth open, I stared at him in horror, my stomach burning, beer halfway to my lips. Yikes! He had another, this time drinking it much slower while I drank my beer. Refreshed, we headed back to the school. This would be our routine when we hit a town. Gin for George, Beer for me.

That night as part of our class assignment, a village elder came and told us the old legends of his tribe, of their gods and how his people came to be. George was our interpreter, interjecting his own comments from time to time. The old man told us a story of how the luck of the village had changed when their sacred tree had been cut down. Many years before a group of young men came from a rival village and cut down their tree in retaliation for cutting down that village's sacred tree.
Things went from good to bad to worse for the village after that. As we sat around the fire listening to the old man's story George turned to me gleefully and whispered "I was one of the young men who snuck into the village and cut down the tree! Better to cut down a tree than to cut off each others heads!"

The next day we pulled out, headed to the next town. At the next village the local shaman came to read chicken entrails. Apparently you foretell the future by looking at chicken guts. I got delegated to hold the live chicken while it's wings and body were beaten with a stick, something to do with forcing the blood to certain parts of the body. That's me being totally disgusted. Each village was different than the other, not only did the locals dress differently, but the architecture of the homes changed too. It was amazing that from one side of the mountain to the next things could be so different. We were to find that Sagada was an anomaly among the other towns we visited, cleaner, friendlier and more familiar to our Western eyes and tastes. We stayed dirty for days, stopping once at a river to wash. By this time neither the boys or the girls cared about bathing in their underwear, we just wanted to get clean.

The last stop on trip was Banaue, famous for the impressive views of the rice terraces. This time we would be spending the night at a hotel there, overlooking the famed rice terraces. We would have the use of our own beds with clean sheets, flushing toilets, showers and a swimming pool. Heaven. A few hours later, washed, a full stomach we were lazily lounging in the pool watching a single engine plane come up the valley. Thirty minutes later there was a commotion by the bar, and one of my schoolmates came hurrying up. "hey that plane we saw, it crashed! They say some Americans are hurt!"
Some local farmers had seen the plane crash and had stopped a passing car to send word to get help. We threw on our clothes and ran out into the parking lot where a truck was getting ready to pull out. We climbed aboard and away we went. We drove a few miles and pulled up next to another truck stopped by the side of the road. There was a heated conversation going on between the local police, the farmers and the occupants of the other vehicle. Apparently the occupants were dead, they were Americans and being apprehensive about handling dead bodies no one wanted to touch them. "They have sent for the PC, they are worried about the dead spirits" someone said. Crude stretchers had been made from branches and blankets by the farmers. Norman and some of the guys grabbed stretchers and headed over the side of the road and I followed. We got to the plane and they were in fact dead and we were going to have to get them out of the plane and back up the mountain. I avoided looking at their faces. Where the seat belts were their clothes were torn and the bones badly broken. They were so heavy. I wondered how their shoes got off their feet. All of a sudden I wasn't so sure I wanted to do this. Fortunately for me there were twice as many Brent students as were needed. Norman took charge and in short order had the bodies out, strapped on the stretchers and mostly covered in blankets. As they filed past me I involuntarily looked at the foot of one of the bodies, it was grayish blue. I found myself wondering at how fast life leaves us; in a short hour the things that mark us as alive are gone. As we made our way back up we passed soldiers climbing down. The PC had arrived.

After we got back to the hotel we had a meeting over drinks, I know I needed one. We were supposed to spend another day there, but no one felt like hanging out. We took a vote and it was decided that we would head back to Brent in the morning. I went to bed early that night, though some Seniors were tempted by the hotel bar.

It was fairly quiet in the back of the truck for the first few hours, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Scott, Curby and I were leaning up against the straps at the end of the truck. It was a little tricky, keeping your balance and leaning back without bouncing out of the back of the truck, but we managed to get the hang of it. One of the girls turned on her cassette player and all of a sudden we were singing along to ABBA and then the three of us did an impromptu dance number to a new song by The Three Degrees called "When Will I see you Again", singing at the top of our lungs. Life goes on


  1. Fabulous, Mark. You did it again. Just brilliant.

  2. Good you still have very vivid memories of your childhood !

  3. I like the way you describe in details your experience during the trip--also very amusing photos!